Changing the Drug Policy Narrative

Militarized strategies have failed to win the war on drugs. We need a new approach that puts people at the centre, says Robert Muggah.
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September 8, 2014

Change is the air. Latin American opinion and decision-makers are pressing for a new approach to global drug policy. For one, they are calling for an end to militarized strategies that have contributed to soaring organized violence and swelling prisons. Meanwhile, they are proposing new approaches that put the health, safety and rights of people at the center of paradigm.

In short, they are changing the narrative.

One of the most influential voices of this new generation of drug policy reformers is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. After decades of fighting a war on drugs, the former Defense Minister is pushing for alternative approaches emphasizing crop-substitution, harm reduction, and decriminalization.

Santos is not alone. Political leaders from Argentina and Costa Rica to Guatemala and Uruguay are exploring innovative strategies, testing long-established drug policy orthodoxies. They are also supported by an eclectic mix of activists, police chiefs, health workers and scholars from around the world. And the way they are talking about drugs is a far cry from the discourse that has dominated for the past fifty years.

Until recently, the goals of drug policy were predicated on supply-side metrics designed to combat the problem. Typical indicators included hectares of illicit crops eradicated, the amount of drugs seized, the street price of narcotics, and the number of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug law violations. Yet even when measured against its stated objectives, the global drug control system is “floundering.”

It is worth recalling that the international drug control regime, including the Commission on Narcotic Policy, is premised on two basic aspirations. The first is to ensure access to drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The second is to prohibit access to certain drugs for other uses. Its overarching goal is to protect the “health and welfare of mankind.” Notwithstanding these objectives, some governments interpret drug policy through a punitive criminal justice lens.

Notwithstanding the allure of simple solutions, the design of effective drug policy demands a clear reading of the issue. It requires making a distinction between the problems generated by drug use – including dependence and overdose – and the negative ramifications of enforcement-led drug policies, including the criminal violence associated with the illicit trade. Some governments have unhelpfully conflated the harms generated by drug consumption with those arising from repressive policies.

A small but influential clutch of policymakers talk in generalized terms about the “global drug menace.” This kind of nomenclature has long justified the resort to heavy-handed responses that in turn perpetuates drug-related harms. Government strategies often rely heavily on heavy-handed enforcement and the criminalization of producers, sellers and consumers. The expectation is that the threat of more muscular policing and longer prison sentences will deter would-be criminals. A “tough on crime” approach burnishes their crime fighting credentials.

Yet the reality is that drug use encompasses a wide spectrum, from the “non-problematic” to the “compulsive.” The UN itself admits that less than 10 per cent of people using drugs are actually problem users. Even so, drug policy hardliners continue treating all users as if they constituted a threat to society. The discussion is framed as a “fight” against the “evil” of drug addiction. A chief exponent of this conservative view is Pope Francis who recently condemned the “scourge of drug use” referring to the “evil” nature of drug addiction.

A welcome feature of the emerging drug policy debate is the turn toward scientific evidence as the basis for public policy making. After all, effective prescriptions rely on an informed understanding of the problem and the outcomes of proposed solutions. And part of this shift has also entailed a widening of the drug policy lens to account not just for criminal justice perspectives, but others connected to public health, development, and human rights.

In the process, drug policy reformers have started asking whether the international community is setting the right goals or deploying the most appropriate metrics to gauge change. Do the targets established by drug warriors reflect the public good or are they instead serving corporate and bureaucratic interests? While the focus on fumigation, drug interdiction, and arrests may reflect their commitment and resolve, it is fair to ask whether these same indicators adequately capture changes in the health and welfare of affected populations.

A growing coalition of leaders is calling for the explicit rethinking of the goals, targets and indicators of global drug policy. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, along with others is proposing arguably more appropriate measures of drug policy impact. What they demonstrate is that efforts to destabilize drug production and trafficking are means, not ends, of public policy. And in the process, these opinion-makers are laying out a framework for more humane goals and metrics to gauge drug policy effectiveness and efficiency.

At a minimum, revised drug policy goals should emphasize public safety and reductions in drug-related violence. Monitoring the hundreds of thousands of people killed, injured and displaced by the war on drugs is a step in the right direction. Likewise, a refocusing on minimizing the power and influence of criminal organizations and cartels can provide a good index of whether drug policies are achieving their desired effect.

Another worthwhile drug policy goal could be the ending of the criminalization and stigmatization of drug users. The people whose lives are most harshly affected by punitive policies are low-level dealers (as opposed to higher-order kingpins) and drug users. The harsh sentencing of consumers generates far-reaching social and economic costs, effectively taking young men and women out of the formal economy. It also distracts policy makers from the real priority, which is disrupting the drug market and attendant violence.

A reformed drug policy regime might also curb drug use through public health measures, rather than solely through the application of criminal justice. At the center should be strategies that reduce excess mortality and morbidity generated by drug consumption, including overdose and diseases such as HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis A and B. Governments are already adopting national and municipal legislation supporting harm reduction based on demonstrated good practice.

One more effective measure of successful drug policy could include a reduction in the incarceration of non-violent drug related offenders. The traditional emphasis on enforcement and incarceration has resulted in an explosion of prison populations around the world. This has resulted in non-productive spending on private detention facilities and what some call a “prison industrial complex”. There is disproportionate sentencing for small-time possession and consumption. New goals and metrics should rebalance the burden of penalties accorded to first-time offenders and track alternate sentencing measures.

None of these goals advocate that governments go soft on organized crime and cartels. Scarce law enforcement and justice resources should absolutely be devoted to taking on high-level drug trafficking organizations, many of who have infiltrated public institutions. Curbing the reach and influence of these groups, including their financial assets and connections with the banking sector, should be a top priority.

Arguably the most important step that leaders can take is to experiment with different models of drug regulation. This is not as radical as it sounds. There are currently 23 U.S. states with legal medical cannabis markets and 17 more that have decriminalized personal possession. Meanwhile, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and many more are experimenting with different regulatory and harm reduction models.

As with any public policy innovation, the move toward a regulated market entails risks and can backfire. There is no guarantee of success or a single solution. To the contrary: a wide array of options is available for regulating the production, supply and use of various types of drugs. The lessons being gleaned from pioneering efforts from around the world, especially the Americas, will inform an iterative and fascinating process of change.

Central to the design of more effective and efficient drug policy is agreement on new goals and metrics to monitor and evaluate impacts. Notions of a “drug free world” are not just outdated, they sustain irrational and dangerously misguided policy prescriptions. A resort to ideology over evidence is not the way forward. Fortunately, a movement is underway to reframe the drug policy narrative and in so doing, changing the future trajectory of global drug policy for good.

This article was supported by Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, the director of the Igarapé Institute and executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, with insights from researchers associated with Brazil's Pense Livrenetwork. 

Also in the series


Canada's pot policies: what happened?

An interview with Dan Werb on what changes in U.S. drug law mean for Canada.

Lessons from Uruguay’s drug reform

Ten factors any country debating marijuana legalization should consider. By Eva Salinas.

On the frontlines: drug reform in Texas

Could marijuana be legalized in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.? By Nathan Jones.

A less-violent, illicit drug market? It is possible

If we were serious about harm reduction, we would manage drug markets, not crack down on them, argues Jean Daudelin.